Monday, July 14, 2014

Eric Holder Resuscitating the Sedition Act of 1798

Once upon a time, the party now calling itself "Democratic" placed itself at the forefront of defense of constitutionally protected speech.  Now its leaders move openly against 1st Amendment freedoms such as the press and political speech.

In the 1790s, freewheeling partisan publications launched hyperbolic, bitter, and occasionally hilarious tirades against political figures.  It created a political climate less civil than today, but more so than the English custom of pelting unworthy candidates for office with rotten food.  Federalists, who controlled all three branches of government, concluded that enough was enough and passed the Sedition Act.

This legislation, alongside more serious and defensible measures, made it a misdemeanor to bring any part of the government "into contempt or disrepute."

This included, of course, President John Adams.

Along with the less threatening Alien Act, Democratic-Republicans finally found their winning issue.  Under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, they chased forever from power the party that passed the Constitution and supported the policies of George Washington.

Ever since, Americans have been loathe to return to the issue.  Free speech has most often been seen as part of the protection of rights.  Serving in government means exposing oneself to the unkind jabs of opponents.  Abraham Lincoln's features, now seen as physiological signs of majesty, were attacked as unspeakably ugly. At 300 pounds on entering office, William Howard Taft was doomed from the start.  Schenk v. United States did put limits on speech, but only in terms of preventing reasonably predictable violence or harm.

Now the Department of Justice has extended its heavy handed reach to restore the spirit of the long dead Sedition Act.  A 4th of July parade float featuring a zombie like figure and an outhouse marked "Obama Presidential Library" has prompted an investigation.  A Kenyan national found it offensive, used the word "racist," and reported it to the government.

It does not matter if the float was as tasteless as similar visual jokes made about George W. Bush's legacy several years ago.  This is protected free speech.  Any hint of government action is highly inappropriate because of the chilling effect created.  Parade sponsors, the Odd Fellows, have discussed limiting the scope of allowable floats in response.

What about this float threatened anyone?  Certainly it encouraged people to view the president with contempt.  In America, that is not only legal, but often expected out of some quarters.

Whether or not a display is too tasteless is the purview of the community, not the federal government.  The attorney general needs to recall the investigators. Free speech is still the law of the land in the United States.

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